No team has been on a faster pace early in free agency so far than the Phillies, who have added Marlon Byrd to their outfield and agreed to retain catcher Carlos Ruiz. As you certainly know, both moves have been met with derision in certain corners of the baseball world, partially because both Byrd & Ruiz are older players with recent PED suspensions and at least one lousy year in the last two, and partially because Ruben Amaro‘s reputation is such these days that he could find a way to trade John Mayberry for Mike Trout and people would still laugh at him about it.
Amaro’s earned a lot of that scorn, obviously, thanks to the atrocious Ryan Howard extension, his bets on Michael Young & Delmon Young last winter, and his insistence on retaining an aging core as the team has fallen from 102 wins to 81 to 73 in the last three years. But while these new moves aren’t exactly slam dunks, you can defend each of them on their own. Byrd’s contract is exactly in line with what basically everyone on the internet — FanGraphs readers included — expected he would get, and while guaranteeing Ruiz three years at his age is a lot harder to stomach, Dave Cameron did lay out a convincing case for why it can be considered a reasonable move.
So, fine: the Phillies have added an outfielder on a decent contract who immediately becomes one of their two best in the corners, and kept a good-enough catcher who has plenty of familiarity with their pitching staff in a world where catcher upgrades aren’t especially easy to come by. Really, that’s not a terrible week.
That’s all well and good. It still doesn’t answer the big question, however: what exactly are the Phillies doing?
We know the answer to that from Amaro’s point of view, of course. He wants to win in 2014. You don’t sign a 36-year-old outfielder and a soon-to-be 35-year-old catcher if you don’t think you can win right away. You don’t refuse to trade 35-year-olds Chase Utley and Cliff Lee if you plan on entering a rebuilding process.
And that’s fine, really. We might look at an old roster playing in a division with two of the better teams in baseball — sorry, Mets & Marlins, not you — and consider the “go for it” mode laughable. But there’s a viable argument to be made that Amaro doesn’t have the luxury to do anything else right now, since he might not be around to see the other side of a rebuild. (Not to mention, the organization may not want to waste the prime of Cole Hamels and knows Howard’s deal is absolutely unmovable.) While the finances aren’t exactly efficient and the depth is basically nonexistent, starting off with Hamels, Lee, Utley, Domonic Brown, and Jonathan Papelbon is a reasonably dangerous quintet.
So if you’re going for it, then go for it, and the Phillies have the resources to make that happen. They’re a wealthy team, remember, with big television money coming, and a protected first round draft pick. They might not be the Dodgers as far as spending goes, but they shouldn’t be limited so much by dollars as they are by simple roster spots with which to upgrade. Going in to the offseason, they had three obvious holes with which to fix the disappointing offense that tied with the Mets for the 23rd-best wRC+ in baseball last year:
That’s somewhat imperfect, because injuries and suspensions meant that Mayberry, Darin Ruf, Kevin Frandsen, Freddy Galvis, etc., saw considerable playing time, but the point is clear. If you wanted to improve this team, then catcher, third base, and right field (barring an unlikely trade of Revere to open up center) were the ways to do it, because everywhere else is spoken for.
With these latest two signings, the Phillies have now set themselves up with…
C — Ruiz
1B — Howard
2B — Utley
3B — Cody Asche, probably
SS — Rollins
LF — Brown
CF — Revere
RF — Byrd
…and this is where the small picture clashes with the big one. By itself, Ruiz is probably a defensible signing. By itself, Byrd’s deal gives them an upgrade over last year’s atrocious right field collection. (Probably, anyway; it’s anyone’s guess what he is after his last two years.) But with their ages and recent histories of inconsistency, neither can be expected to be the additions that substantially change this team, and so you’ve cashed in two of your three available lineup upgrades for mild improvements, not enormous ones — and that’s if Ruiz bounces back, and if Byrd is a lot closer to what he was in 2013 than what he was in 2012.
Unless Amaro pulls off a surprise and somehow trades Brown while also upgrading over him, he’s left with only third base to play with, but with an excruciatingly thin market and the desire to not block Maikel Franco, Asche probably gets a full-time job, and it’s difficult to place high expectations on him.
This all goes back to what, really, is the plan in Philadelphia. It’s not the money spent on Byrd and Ruiz that’s the problem here, because really, the money isn’t that much. It’s the filling of two empty spots with guys who are decent enough, but not at all difference makers. You can’t simply cross your fingers and hope that Howard is less awful, that both Utley & Rollins will stay healthy and productive as they age another year, that late-career Ruiz & Byrd both resemble the one good season they’ve had in the last two rather than the one bad season.
That, however, currently appears to be the idea. The team is largely about maintaining the status quo, committing to neither making the big moves forward it needs to compete with Atlanta & Washington this year nor the teardown it likely needs to be competitive in the years to come. It’s merely standing in place and spending a great deal of money to finish something like 80-82 next year. We’ll see if this trend continues when Amaro figures out who is going to join Lee, Hamels, and Kyle Kendrick to fill out the rotation, but the nearly-inevitable three-year deal for a non-elite reliever, well, that’s just not going to cut it.
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